At 27, British singer-songwriter Adele enjoys an unparalleled fan fervor and reach. She's managed with the slow-and-steady domination of her two previous LPs to become the kind of artist the whole world watches.
It's a feat much harder to accomplish in the attention-deficit digital age than when Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston had a stranglehold on the collective consciousness. Nowadays, breaking through in such a way requires both a flawless marketing strategy and a singular talent.
Adele's talent is indisputable, refreshingly the driving force behind insane anticipation for her new album. Her strategy in getting the word out? Pretty bare bones. People want new stuff so badly that all she has to do is release and perform it. Instant sales records follow.
So here we are, finally, with 25 in our headphones (and a tissue at the ready). How does it stack up to 21, the previous album that outsold the world? The styles aren't only more varied, but her vocals seem a little more Aretha-fied in some runs. Not mad at that.
But before we talk about the surprises of the record, let's cry together.
"Hello" and "When We Were Young" are variations on the wistfulness Adele conveys with her signature sustained vocal notes. "Hello," now so ubiquitous that other artists are getting bumps after covering it, can jerk tears from the eyes of anyone harboring an unspoken apology. But "Young," cowritten by Tobias Jesso Jr., is inherently sadder thanks to the existential dread in its lyrics. This is not a song about enjoying the moment.
One track that does embrace the now, at least romantically, is "All I Ask," even though the Bruno Mars cowrite contains the line, "What if I never love again?" Yeesh, Adele, we'd like to listen to your music in public at some point!
I kid. There's significantly more hope to be found in "Remedy," a song of reassurance featuring mostly keys and voice. But that one, cowritten with past collaborator Ryan Tedder, comes off a tad pedestrian compared to the equally simple "Million Years Ago," a haunting and gorgeous pain poem over delicate acoustic guitar.
Yes, several classic Adele moments help anchor the new record in the proven magic of her two previous ones. But another chunk of this album is more about creating particular moods rather than interpreting them. This time around, it seems the singer is having more fun applying her powerful pipes to vibe-y sonic experiments. They mostly succeed and bolster 25 with welcome curveballs.
I have to admit I was a little disappointed when I heard the pop-wizard Max Martin was contributing one of the tracks on 25. Adele certainly doesn't need that kind of help to create a hit. But I judged too soon -- "Send My Love (To Your New Lover)" allows the songstress to kick out a taut, rhythmic pop chorus for once. You can now dance to an Adele song. It'll be everywhere at some point, mark my words.
Past collaborator Paul Epworth even gets in on a couple of the eyebrow-raising tracks. My favorite track on the album might be "I Miss You," a minor-chord banger that concerns itself with lust as much as love. And Adele's new status as a mother helps the addictive waltz "Sweetest Devotion" close the album with unbridled joy.
On another standout track, the biographical "River Lea," Adele sings, "I'm scared to death if I let you in that you'll see I'm just a fake." It's a universal human fear, but laughably unfounded when it comes to Adele's artistry. Her lack of artifice is precisely why the world responds to her the way it does.
All we needed was that voice, one that's finally loud and clear again.